Over Christmas our little boy was ill. Nothing makes you feel further away from home than being in a foreign country with a poorly child. As if our first Christmas outside the UK wasn’t making us homesick enough!
In the end it was nothing serious, just the vomiting bug that all the cool kids seem to be catching this winter, but it was the worst we’ve seen him. The highlight was probably boxing day: scooping out half digested chunks of egg from down the back of the sofa after he’d decided that egg wasn’t what the doctor ordered and threw it up all over me, my new Christmas jumper and the sofa. Pleasant it was not.
For the first couple of days we were full of that confidence that’s so rare being a parent: we know what we’re doing, and what we’re doing is right. But you start to lose that confidence after days of him not keeping anything down and one particularly exhausting night where he was awake every two hours to be sick or at least retch like his intestines were in the wrong place and only a damned good hurl was going to get them to where they needed to be. So by day five, shattered and worried: Something Had To Be Done.
So we phoned our paediatrician. Of course, this being Christmas, he was at home with his family and had no interest in hearing about sick people. Unlike in the UK, the entire doctor’s surgery was in fact on holiday. The only clue as to how to progress was a hastily recorded answer phone message that I imagine was left by the last person to leave the office for the day after a large, Italian lunch when it suddenly occurred to them that people might get sick sometime over the next two weeks. As always with these messages, they’re recorded by somebody standing in vaguely the same room as the answer phone, but not speaking into it, as that would clearly make understanding their machine gun fast language far too easy for foreigners.
After listening to the message about sixteen times, I’d managed to capture a phone number which, as far as I could gather, was the number of a doctor who was available for the duration. I phoned the number and left a message, as best I could, to explain that we had a poorly baby and could use some help.
In the interim, my wife had had the brilliant idea to put a UK sim back into our mobile phone and call NHS direct. Genius! So I did. Thank God for the UK and people working over Christmas, in a call centre of all Godforsaken places. The person I spoke to was very helpful – reassured me that we were doing everything right, keep on providing food and water (which was good to know, I was seriously considering starving him until the vomiting stopped) and someone would phone back within four hours.
The nurse did phone back and the first question was a little tough to answer: “and whereabouts in the UK are you at the minute?” Er, now – do I lie, knowing you’ve just listened to an international dial tone? Or do I tell the truth? I’m English, I went with telling the truth.
“I’m sorry, sir, we’re not legally allowed to offer help to people outside the UK.” She sounded like a nice sort, so I laid on the emotional blackmail thick. “I’m really sorry, sir, let me check with someone senior.” Aah, the “line manager” trick every call centre uses. “I’m very sorry, we’re only licensed to practice medicine within the UK so we can’t help you.”
I mean – seriously? What the actual and literal fuck. I know you can’t tell me about local pharmacies or other local health care opportunities. I don’t want that – I just want the reassuring words of a health care professional that we’re doing the right thing and our little boy will be fine in a couple of days. But, no, a phone service can only be accessed by people physically present in the UK.
They weren’t to know we weren’t here on holiday (that was our story), and didn’t speak enough language to get local health care (not far from the truth). For people that are abroad on holiday and have a sickly child, this must be horrifying and incredibly frightening. Her best advice was, “talk to your tour rep.” Really? And if you’re not travelling with a pack of chavs? I think this is outrageous – if you’re somewhere else in the EU, even if you’re a UK citizen on holiday: tough! Try A&E. Having been to Italian A&E, they also don’t speak any English.
Plan B: we phoned our old doctor in the UK. The saint that he is, he phoned back: “well you’re no longer our patient so I’m under no obligation to help.” No, we understand that, thank you very much for being a human being and phoning us back, though.
“And I can’t follow up so this isn’t really qualified medical advice.” That’s perfect, I’m happy for you to talk to me as a parent, as a human being. I’m not going to sue you if your advice turns out to be wrong.
He made the reassuring, cooing noises we needed to hear. Confirmed that we were doing the right thing: keep feeding, including milk, keep well hydrated, he’s too young for rehydration salts, stick with it, he’ll be fine in a couple of days. Thanks. We knew all of that – but it’s nice to have it confirmed by someone that ought to know. Phew.
Lo and behold, two days later, our little lad was back to his usual, noisy, chaos causing self. Since then he’s started walking full time, so we’re unbelievably shattered, but incredibly relieved that he’s back to being a total and utter, unbelievably tiring, pain in the arse bundle of joy.
For me the whole exercise has been enlightening. You get used to people applying common sense in Italy. Rules are there as a guidance, but people basically behave like human beings. Whereas in the UK rules is rules, and people basically behave like machines. It made us realise how much we miss family, and how hard it is being away from family at Christmas. But it also made us realise just how much living in the UK is a cold, mechanical, soulless experience.